By Kevin Redding
As a film production major at New York University in 1982, Ben Model sat in a film history class and watched a series of silent movies with his peers. The early 16mm prints had no sound tracks backing them and Model felt the disinterest of his classmates.
“It really bothered me that these movies were bombing in front of film students every week,” said Model, 55, who grew up enchanted by three things: silent movies, the art of filmmaking and music, having started piano lessons when he was 5. “So I figured, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but it’s got to be better than nothing.”
So he approached his professor and offered to play piano during the screenings to liven the experience for the audience — an idea the professor loved. From then on, until he graduated two years later, Model (pronounced Moe-del) served as the maestro for two to three film screenings per week in the basic cinema history class as well as a film historian’s class — providing the music for many of the earliest movies ever made, from Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 50-second-long actuality films depicting military events and everyday scenes to Thomas Edison’s studio films to the works of pioneer filmmakers D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein.
Through his new gig, he met and befriended renowned silent film accompanist Lee Erwin, who was an organist in theaters during the 1920s and was, at the time, playing the giant Wurlitzer organ at Carnegie Hall Cinema in Manhattan, one of the few repertory theaters back then. Erwin served as Model’s mentor, someone whose brain the young college student often picked, learning what works, what doesn’t, what to do, what not to do.
While Model only started doing this to engage his peers in early films, he wound up turning it into a career spanning more than 30 years. He currently serves as one of the leading silent film accompanists and most well-respected silent film historians, traveling around the world in a wide variety of venues presenting silent films and providing unforgettable live scores for hundreds of them.
Model has been a resident silent film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art since 1984; the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus Theatre since 2009; the Silent Film Days in Tromsø portion of the Tromsø International Film Festival in Norway, home to Verdensteatret, Norway’s oldest cinema in use, dating back to 1916, for 12 years; the historic Egyptian Theatre in Boise, Idaho, where he performs scores with a full orchestra; recently played in theaters in Connecticut, Maryland and Ohio and frequently performs at museums and schools; will be playing at the Turner Classic Movies film festival next month; and, since 2006, can be seen locally at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington once a month during the theater’s Anything But Silent program.
Model is also a lecturer, film programmer and visiting professor of film studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, as well as the creator of New York City’s Silent Clowns Film Series, launched in 1997 as the premiere, regularly scheduled showcase for silent film comedy, from Buster Keaton to Laurel & Hardy.
“There’s something so immersive about the experience of silent films, especially when you see it with live music,” Model said. “It’s ironic that because of what’s missing from the film, you’re actually much more involved and engaged, because the imagination is filling in everything: the sound, the colors, pieces of the story, the gags. You’re assembling them in your head, in a group setting. You can get lost in it; you feel like you’re almost part of what’s going on — it’s like a trance.”
A trance, he said, he’s long been in. “When I started doing this, I realized that throughout my life, anything surrounding silent film kind of just worked out for me,” he said.
It all started with Charlie Chaplin. While some little kids were obsessed with dinosaurs and others with trains and trucks, young Model gravitated toward The Tramp, consuming all his films he could find and reading biographies and film books on his craft. That paved the way for Chaplin’s contemporaries like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
When he was 12, Model, who grew up in Larchmont in Westchester County, received a book called “The Silent Clowns” written by Walter Kerr, a New York Times theater critic in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and silent film fanatic himself, which became something of a sacred text to the young boy. Because Kerr lived close by, and had amassed a huge collection of these movies he wrote about, Model’s parents encouraged him to reach out to the author.
“So I wrote him a letter telling him I was interested in seeing more silent films,” Model said, explaining that, in the mid-70s, he had to wait for them to show up on television and there was a lot of movies he read about that he just couldn’t find. “Walter Kerr called me four days later. Over the next 15 to 20 years, a few times a year, I’d go over and he’d say, ‘So, what do you want to see?’ So I grew up going to the guy who literally wrote the book on silent film comedy.”
Model said in terms of his performances, he’s primarily an improviser — relying on his background as a silent film devourer and improv comedian in college to let things come to him naturally, he said, like musicians do in jazz. But if he hasn’t seen the film before, he’ll watch it in advance to take note of different story and action beats in order to stay ahead of the movie and provide certain underscores when needed.
“Ben is creating a virtual time machine of the original movie-going experience and transporting our audiences to another era,” said Raj Tawney, director of publicity and promotions for Cinema Arts Centre, adding that audiences during Anything But Silent nights are always fully engrossed: laughing, shrieking and hooting and hollering. “There’s an undeniable respect for Ben’s choice of film, his vast historical knowledge, and the commitment to giving the best performance to each film. He’s a rock star in his own right.”
Model said he loves performing at Cinema Arts Centre because of its monthly embrace of these old films.“You’d be hard-pressed to find a suburban art cinema that thinks silent movies are worth showing,” Model said. “At Cinema Arts Centre, they recognize that sound is only part of the film landscape.”
He encourages people of all ages to come and experience a silent film. He recalled the impact a screening of Keaton’s 1928 film “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” from 10 years ago had on an 8-year-old girl, whose father later told Model that the film, its presentation and her experience that night was the subject of her college essay.
“Everyone involved with these films is dead, but even one from 100 years ago is just as entertaining as it was when it was first released,” Model said. “Silents are able to make the trip across several decades sometimes better than sound movies. It’s just so rewarding to be able to help these films live again, and build the next audience for them.”